The TH Interview: Stephanie Meeks of The Nature Conservancy (Part One)

Immersed in the nifty slickness of "environmentalism 2.0" it's sometimes easy to forget about the patient progress of the groups like The Nature Conservancy. At 56-years old, The Nature Conservancy is a granddaddy eco-org, and was doing its leafy green thing before it was cool. As the acting president and CEO, Stephanie Meeks sits at the front of this ship, navigating through policy, politics, big business, and controversy. ::TreeHugger Radio

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.TreeHugger: Stephanie, give us a taste for the size and the scope of what the Nature Conservancy does.

Stephanie Meeks: The Nature Conservancy, as you say, has been around for a long time, we're a 57-year-old organization. We work in 35 countries, including every state of the United States, most of Central and Latin America, Asia, and we have a toehold in Africa.

We have embarked on a goal for 2015 to work with others to double the amount of protected area on the planet, both terrestrial area as well as freshwater and marine resources. Just to put that in some scale, that's doubling what the modern conservation movement was able to do in the last 100 years, essentially. So it's really quite a dramatic goal that we've set.

TH: In doing that, what are the chief tools that are used to achieve those sorts of far-reaching goals?

SM: The Nature Conservancy uses a number of different tools. In the United States, our history has been to use land acquisition quite extensively. We have a nature preserve system in the United States. In addition to outright land acquisition, we also use a legal tool called conservation easements in the United States, where you buy a restriction on a piece of property. It's like a development restriction that enables us to achieve a lot of protection at a fraction of the cost of outright land acquisition.

In other parts of the world where either it is not possible for the Nature Conservancy to do land acquisition (or in a place like China where there is no private land ownership) we use very different kinds of tools, including working with governments on the development and creation of their protected areas networks, for example. We work in a lot of island communities, with local communities, and with indigenous groups on the creation of marine protected areas.

Increasingly, in every country that we're working in, we're looking for different policy and public funding opportunities, and we have government relations efforts in several countries to work with governments to find the right legislative tools to bring protection to bear.

TH: And you've actually testified as an expert in front of a Senate committee on climate change, and The Nature Conservancy is also pretty active in emissions trading, or carbon credit trading programs to tackle climate change issues. How does climate change fit into the conservation goals?

SM: Well, as a landowner, and as an organization that's dedicated to the protection of biodiversity of life on Earth, we feel very strongly that climate change poses a significant threat to biodiversity, and therefore, it's one of the largest threats to our mission—both to everything that we've done in the last 57 years and the work that we will do over the next 100 years or beyond. So, the Nature Conservancy has gotten more engaged in climate.

We're actually not active in carbon credit exchange at this point. We are advocating for the creation of a cap-and-trade program in the United States, and we would be interested in seeing a cap-and-trade program globally, especially one that recognizes the value of forest carbon as being tradeable.

The destruction of forests, especially tropical forests, are said to account for as much as 22% of emissions worldwide. Just to put that in some context, that equals the entire transportation sector. So, if you add up every car, airplane, ship, train, and every mode of transportation on the planet and the emissions from those vehicles, it's equal to the amount of carbon released when trees are cut down. I was astounded when I first learned that.

So, it's evident that there cannot be a plan and a cure for climate change without including, in some way, efforts to slow the destruction of tropical forests.

We believe that the creation of a cap-and-trade program—which would provide economic incentives for people to keep their forests intact and compensate them for keeping their forests intact—is a great way to use the free market system to bring some economic pressure to keeping those forests in place. That's why the Nature Conservancy is interested in forest carbon.

You mentioned my testimony; I did have the opportunity to testify before the House Select Committee on Energy and Global Warming. And one of the reasons that they asked the Nature Conservancy to testify is that we have been working in the area of forest carbon for almost 15 years.

We've done projects in South America where we've been testing scientific issues that are some of the bugaboos of forest carbon, including things like leakage, additionality, and permanence. We've been testing these concepts and demonstrating ways that carbon can be accounted for.

If there's going to be a market for carbon, then the market's going to have to have confidence that what an investor is buying is actually a real asset, and that the carbon is being sequestered in a stand of forest. And so we've been working with scientists over the past 12 or 15 years to document and demonstrate the tools to show how that can be done.

TH: You mentioned "leakage." That's not a term that people are familiar with, at least as a technical one. Explain what leakage means.

SM: It's a fairly simple concept. I'll give you a specific example. The Nature Conservancy did an avoided deforestation project (a forest carbon project) in Peru, and worked with the government there to put specific restrictions on an area that had been suffering from illegal logging.

And the question that people will ask is, Okay, so you brought protection to that particular place, but have you just pushed the demand for logging into another part of the country? And that's why coming up with national-scale programs is really important, because then you would know that you weren't just pushing logging from one part of the country to another, although leakage can even happen between countries.

An example of that is China. Several years ago, as a result of some devastating floods, the government issued a ban on logging in China. But, the demand for timber in China hasn't decreased, and if anything has increased. And so, the demand has just been pushed off to other countries, mostly in Southeast Asia. So, we're seeing rising levels of logging, and in some instances illegal logging, in parts of Southeast Asia. That's an example of leakage.

And that's why The Nature Conservancy is advocating for a cap-and-trade program that acknowledges forest carbon in the United States. But, our hope is that globally that will be part of the post-Kyoto Accord, to help us incorporate forest carbon into a global climate change solution.

TH: There's a notion that's central to the mechanism of The Nature Conservancy that you call Conservation by Design. And this is really close to the center of how you operate and the approach you take to new projects and to ongoing project success. Define this, what's the Conservation by Design thing?

SM: Conservation by Design is The Nature Conservancy's strategic planning framework. The power of this tool is that everybody in The Nature Conservancy uses it. So our projects in Africa and our projects in Indonesia follow the same planning protocol. And it enables us to have conservation practitioners from around the world talking to one another in the same language, which is a great thing. So we can really bring the best conservation minds to bear in any one place.

But the concept is really very simple, and it comes from The Nature Conservancy's roots, which is that we're an organization that's not politically motivated. We're driven by science. Conservation by Design is a four step process. First we identify our targets: what are we trying to protect?

And in these instances we're talking about plants, animals, or natural communities. We put together portfolios of places that represent the biodiversity of a certain region. And we do that by the mapping and figuring out where important species live and how much land, or what kind of functioning ecosystem they need to survive. When that's mapped, then we know where we're working.

Then we identify the threats. That's step number two. What are the threats to that particular area? And then the third step is to abate the threats, to take action to try to minimize the threats. And then the fourth step is to measure our progress.

It sounds pretty simple: What are you going to do? What's keeping you from doing it? Take action, and then measure your success. But we've found over time that it's an iterative process and a very dynamic process. It is the methodology that can be applied around the world. And it's interesting, because we get invited by dozens of other conservation organizations to come and talk about Conservation by Design and some of the planning tools that are behind it.

So that's the essence of it. And the output is that we have a map for all of the places that we work. And we believe if those places were effectively conserved—that the threats were minimized—then we would have a secure basis for biodiversity in those places. So we call it Conservation by Design because, in essence, if you add up all of these protected places—some of which would be in public ownership, some in private ownership—you would have a sustainable planet.

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